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In the early 1800s, Congress debates the advisibility of re-establishing a military training academy at West Point, where officers were trained during the Revolutionary War. One of the academy's strongest supporters is flirtatious Carolyn Bainbridge, whose father also believed in West Point. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky persuades the others to fund the academy for a year, and the first group of cadets assemble. Among them is Carolyn's aristocratic fiancé, Howard Shelton, who is attending purely for her sake, and Kentucky woodsman Joe Dawson, who is alight with patriotic ferver. The school's commander is Major Sam Carter, a life-long military man, who does not believe that a good soldier can be created in the classroom. His resentment of the academy is shared by the regular soldiers stationed there, including leader Scully, but civilian teachers Florimond Massey, Jared Danforth and Alden Brown are enthusiastic. Carolyn follows the cadets to the fort and lives in a nearby tavern, which is run by Mrs. Thompson and her servant, Benny Havens. Soon after their arrival, the cadets visit the tavern, where Joe mistakes Carolyn for a serving girl. Intrigued by Joe's masculinity and good nature, Carolyn keeps up the charade. The students begin their studies and are particularly interested in Massey's lectures on strategy, although Carter cancels the class in favor of forced marching. The cadets have several run-ins with the soldiers, including a brutal game of Indian lacrosse, and Carter continutes to drive them hard in the hope of forcing them to quit. Meanwhile, Joe learns Carolyn's true identity and that she is engaged to Howard, and believes that she was deliberately teasing him. Carolyn tries to explain her true feelings, but Joe refuses to listen. Distressed over Carter's harshness to the cadets, Carolyn writes an anonymous letter to Congress asserting that he is incompetent. Later, Carter demands that the cadets reveal the culprit and when they do not, orders them to "ride the cannon." The notorious punishment requires the men to sit astride large cannons as they are dragged by horses across rough terrain, and anyone who falls off will be dismissed from the academy. As night falls, only ten men, including Howard and Joe, are left, but they are determined to stay on the cannons until the end. Howard is shamed by Joe into taking pride in being a cadet, and the ten men endure the punishment throughout the night. In the morning, Carter receives orders to report with his men to General William Henry Harrison in the Indiana territory. Before leaving, Joe again rebuffs Carolyn's romantic overtures by saying that they are too dissimilar. As soon as the soldiers and ten cadets arrive at the fort, Harrison puts Carter in charge, as he leaves with his own men to seek out Tecumseh, their Indian opponent. Carter is then kidnapped by Tecumseh's men and taken to the Indian encampment, but the cadets determine to rescue him. Scully is reluctant to take their orders, but Joe and Howard take charge and organize the small contingent. Using strategy taught by Massey, the cadets succeed in rescuing Carter by tricking the Indians into thinking that they are surrounded. Joe is wounded in the leg, and although Carter, who has changed his mind about the cadets, later urges him to return to West Point and accept his commission, Joe refuses because he is no longer perfectly fit. Carolyn arrives at the fort and insists on marrying Joe, despite his continued objections. She stows away in his wagon as he leaves the fort, and Joe happily surrenders to his fate. Back at the academy, Carter praises all the cadets, including Howard, as they graduate and receive their certificates of proficiency.